Brand Identity: Standing Out in a Crowded Market

Back in the day, ranchers branded cattle to identify each animal. Then, in 1875, Bass Ale stamped a red triangle on everything they made. Now, in 2020, with more choice than ever before, branding shapes the foundation of modern consumption. Brands don’t just symbolize provenance or quality control, but ideologies and identities.

Whether consciously or not, we align ourselves with brands every day.

Whether consciously or not, we align ourselves with brands every day. You hear things like “I’m a Nike guy,” or “I don’t drink Starbucks,” (yes, even going anti-brand is a branded choice). We do this because wearing the swoosh or sipping a green straw says something about us and makes us feel a certain way. The same is true of where we choose to eat. Branding is a chance to stand out from the crowd and align with like-minded people. For restaurants, it’s a chance to cement your culinary philosophy into a system of thinking that informs kitchen techniques, front of house behavior, interior design, social media presence and more. Most importantly, branding is a chance to convey your purpose — your reason for being — as a chef or restaurateur. But before the logos and color palettes; before the signage or menu design, branding starts with strategy.

Strategy is the process of distilling your culinary practice into a deceptively simple set of brand statements. Which together, will set the stage for differentiation. But before you step on the gas, it’s crucial to take time to reflect on your restaurant, cooking style, values and ambitions. This will help you prepare yourself (and your brand) for the starting line. The following advice is not exhaustive of the strategic process, but provides a springboard for creating a clear, action-oriented and memorable brand identity.

1. Define Your Principles

Principles are your foundational, guiding belief system; the restaurant’s collective values. Write them down. Shorten them — a word or phrase, explained by a two-sentence synopsis should do. Then share them with your team. Keep an open mind and revise. Together, crystalize what your restaurant believes in most. Is it craft? Experimentation? Sustainability? Growth? Come up with three to five and be sure these nouns function at a “high level,” (strategy is about understanding the details, then implementing holistic governing principles with a bird’s eye view).

Take a moment to pause. Your principles will set the tone for the rest of your branding and operations. When taken to heart by leadership, they can inform business decisions, staffing choices and much more. Be sure they ring true.

2. Balance Your Tensions

Today’s best brands are nimble and fluid — able to swiftly maneuver around an ever-changing world. At Gretel, we find that the friction and balance between seemingly opposing ideas makes for some of the most interesting art, writing, architecture, music, design, cooking — and brands. We refer to this friction as tension.

Here’s how it works:

List out what your restaurant is notably good at. Then, consider the other, equally positive, end of the spectrum. These opposing ideals should seem at odds with one another, and yet both true and beneficial to your brand. Take, for example, the tension between delicious/disgusting. Not all that insightful, since naturally — we’d choose delicious. But what about elevated/comfortable? Or healthy/indulgent? Or simple/complex? Pinpointing where the restaurant falls on each line of tension will help specify and strengthen what you’re all about.

3. Look Outside the Kitchen

With all this introspection, it’s easy to slip into a vortex. Be sure to pull yourself out every now and again to take a look around. Not at your competition, but at something inspirational. Watch a movie, visit a gallery, try cooking something new. Whatever gets the creative juices flowing. Looking for analogs out-of-category can help you realize tensions and extend the relevance of your brand to more people of diverse interests.

4. Articulate Your Purpose

After landing your principles and balancing your tensions, it’s time to answer why you exist — your reason for being. What’s the one high level idea that everyone at the restaurant can rally around? Make your purpose inspirational, something you can constantly pursue. Something without a finite end, devoid of trend. Make sure it resonates. Then lean in. Embody it. 

Remember, your brand is like a promise. Your guests should know what to expect, even if it’s the unexpected. To ensure you stay true to your promise, root your purpose in your culinary philosophy. Dig deep. What about your approach, process, beliefs, ingredients, menu or dining experience is truly unique, irreducible and irrefutable to your brand?

5. Guide Creative with Characteristics

Finally, think of your brand as a person. What are they like? How do you want them to be viewed? Are they smart? Funny? Serious? Daring? Just like with principles, break down three to five characteristic traits of the brand. Once solidified, your characteristics will inform brand expression — what should the brand look like? How do we sound? Can front of house joke with guests? Should that accent wall be pink or hunter green? 

For a lot of people, this is where the fun part begins. From here you can make informed decisions about your logo and color palette, typefaces and website design. You’ll know whether your copy should feel witty or quiet, sharp or friendly. With the brand’s characteristics in place, you can translate your strategic thinking into compelling visuals and voice.

There’s just one last bit to consider. If your goal is to stand out, you’ll need to address your competition. After all, competing against Noma and McDonald’s are two very different ball games. And like in any game — be it basketball, a cook-off, trading the stock market, or branding — you’ll want to dictate the pace, not fall prey to reactionary response. The good news is, by adhering to your own principles, tensions, characteristics and purpose, you’ve already defined a brand that stands out amongst the crowd.